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To Break Zoning Gridlock, Experts Say Place Focus On Wealth-Building, Community Investment

As New York City has tried to update its land use plan neighborhood by neighborhood to make way for affordable housing development, residents are trying to block the proposals at every turn, claiming that these rezonings will ultimately displace people of color from the community. 

A state official, affordable housing experts and developers said on a Bisnow event this week that the city and developers who want to reshape neighborhoods must engage the community earlier in the process if they hope to break through the gridlock. The affordable housing crisis will require comprehensive community investment, rather than just housing development, they said. 

Inwood, Manhattan

“Affordable housing in the city and across the whole state has evolved so much over the last decade or two and while originally it could have been about the units, it’s no longer about the units, it’s about what is happening …. in the larger community,” said New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas, who spoke on the panel.

As social unrest gripped the country this summer, it became clear that some community outrage over the city’s land use and rezoning process, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, had hit a fever pitch. Land use experts said this was a turning point, the city could not create a “blueprint for the future” without acknowledging the racial impact the process played.

Now, in the aftermath of the failed Industry City rezoning, ongoing outcry over the Flushing rezoning currently on the table and the years-long court battle with some community members over the Inwood rezoning of 2018, government officials, developers and city planners are attempting to find a way to address these issues.

“We need to find a way that people can feel like change is not happening to them, but that they are part of the change and that the change is benefiting them in an equitable way and that it’s addressing a lot of the historic policies that had incredibly racist impacts in neighborhoods throughout New York City,” Visnauskas said.

Brian Loughlin, director of planning and urban design at Magnusson Architecture and Planning, said while the city does a relatively good job of engaging the community in the process, it is working on giving those in the community agency, but there is a third piece that the land use process needs to account for, he said. 

“Those things don’t really kick in unless the communities have a stake, so what is the long-term benefit for that community? And that goes back to community wealth-building,” Loughlin said. “I think it really comes down to a healthy and robust and continued community engagement process.” 

Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit, has started a new strategic plan to ensure that development is focused on "pride, power and belonging," Senior Director of Public Policy Lorraine Collins said. 

“When we are designing developments, what are we really creating and who are we creating it for?” Collins said. 

The program focuses on ensuring that rezonings build welcoming communities, not just buildings and also addresses anti-displacement proactively, to ensure that those in the community have “the opportunity to stay and be part of any transformation,” Collins said. 

Clockwise from top left: Magnusson Architecture and Planning Director of Planning and Urban Design Brian Loughlin, Herrick Feinstein partner Mitch Korbey, Enterprise Community Partners Senior Director of Public Policy Lorraine Collins, KeyBank Senior Vice President Kyle Kolesar, Hudson principal Aaron Koffman, New York State Division of Housing & Community Renewal Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas

Equality and cultivating community must be a priority when plotting future large rezonings, Visnauskas said.

“This really has to really be a shared-equity and a shared-growth kind of growth ...  unless everyone is rising, then I think we’re not really doing it right,” she said. “I think we do that well on an individual-building basis as the city grows. Seeing that in the larger rezonings will sort of take those that are now a contentious concept into hopefully [what] will be growth for everybody and shared growth going forward.”

Hudson principal Aaron Koffman said that a way of improving the ULURP process could be to require those proposing the land use change to engage with a certain number of community groups before they submit their proposals. 

“ULURP, it definitely needs fixing but it still — in its mission and its purpose —  does satisfy some degree of community engagement,” he said. “I will say that more community engagement needs to be done. I would say our most successful ULURPs, which we’ve had a few, are predicated on engaging the community, engaging stakeholders much earlier than the certification date … The more we’ve talked and the more we’ve listened early on, the better our ULURP has been.” 

Another important way to address the affordable housing crisis is to create a regional affordable housing plan that goes beyond the borders of the five boroughs, Koffman said. Exclusionary zoning in New York City's suburbs has artificially deflated the region's housing supply.

“There has to be a regional commitment to increasing our housing supply, of all types but especially affordable,” he said. “If you live in Yonkers and you’re taking the train in, you’re still contributing to the city, so we have to move beyond the zoning code ... We’re long past the time to pass the buck because we’ve crossed a border."